Hey! You Spilled some RPG in my Shooter!

October 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

Is Ratchet and Clank a platformer or a third-person shooter? Is Prince of Persia an action game or a platformer? Is Mass Effect a shooter or an RPG?

The above three examples may all have obvious answers, but it’s hard to deny that for some their appeal will be pretty equally split across the two genres. Though many love the role-playing aspects of the first Mass Effect, it’s clear that there was enough interest in its more action-oriented segments to warrant their more prominent role in the second instalment. You may have approached Ratchet and Clank for some light-hearted platforming, but others may have been attracted to the games for the weapons they let you command.

Splitting a game across genres may, to some, seem like a cash-in of sorts. Rather than putting all your eggs in one basket by trying to appeal to just stealth-action game fans with your tale of subterfuge and political intrigue, why not work in some strategy elements to try and cash in on that X-Com loving crowd? Genre-splitting, if done well, will broaden a game’s appeal, brining in an audience that otherwise wouldn’t have touched it, and maybe even introduce a new genre to them in the process.

It wasn’t always like this. Super Mario Bros never let you hop into a warthog for a brief vehicular segment, and nor did Bill and Lance find their skills magically ‘levelled up’ at the end of each stage of Contra.

Over time though, things changed. Our platforming heroes soon found themselves unable to simply squash enemies, but instead needed swords, guns, and an ever-increasing array of special moves to turn their foes into dust. Soldiers suddenly discovered the lairs of their nemesis’ to be filled with gaps and lava pits only Mario had previously had to brave. Nowadays you can’t think about releasing an online shooter without some sort of progression after each match.

No one ever sat down to try and make this happen. Like most things it just naturally evolved out of a desire to please more people, more of the time. Cherry picking your features from a plethora of different genres allows for a much broader experience, whilst filtering out the genre-staples some might take a disliking to.

So long as you don’t half-ass the inclusion of these features, there’s very little scope for them to harm the overall experience.

Let’s put on our tin-foil hats for a moment here and consider this: has the industry’s desire to do everything held developers back from their true potential?

Imagine for a moment that Super Mario Bros 1, 2 and 3 never existed. Super Mario World never became the best launch game ever, and as for Super Mario 64? Don’t get me started. With the entire Mario legacy erased, would Super Mario Galaxy have been instantly green-lit?

The obvious answer is yes, of course it would have been. It is in the eyes of many the definitive platformer of this generation, but if we look at it from a revenue-conscious publisher’s perspective, does it really seem as easy a sell?

For one it’s cute, almost too cute. That rules out the teenage crowd. There’s no deep-involving storyline here, which limits the potential for sequels. How does this guy fight? He jumps on mushrooms?! Get real!

I’m exaggerating here to prove a point, but I think there’s something to this. Super Mario Galaxy is a phenomenal game because it takes one genre and pushes it as far as it will possibly go. It doesn’t even glance at what it’s competition is doing, because it’s so focussed on getting the maximum about of depth out of Mario’s ability to run and jump. The result is awe-inspiring, a game which doesn’t just leave its contemporaries in the dust, but makes us wonder what they’d been doing for ten years.

Genre-splitting is a wonderful thing. It broadens a potential audience, deepens games, and nine times out of ten makes them better as a result, but there’s a value to specialisation, and it’s one we shouldn’t forget any time soon.


Should Developers Listen to Their Fans?

October 13, 2010 § 2 Comments

You’d be forgiven for thinking that had the deafening sound of applause not erupted at that exact moment then there would have been an audible sigh of relief from the audience. Here we were, guests at the prestigious BAFTA headquarters, being given a lecture by a man most of the internet, it would seem, wants dead.

Guy Cocker, editor at Gamespot UK, and our host for the evening, turned to his interviewee and smiled. 
“Who’d have thought we’d get through an entire Q+A session without a single mention of DMC?” 
I couldn’t help but agree with him.
Announced at this year’s Tokyo Games Show, the next entry in the Devil May Cry series has divided opinion. An initial teaser trailer, and a few meagre screenshots are all that have been publicly released, but already there’s the smell of boycott in the air. The criticism, as it always does in these situations, started with something major; Dante, people complained, is no longer Dante.

These people have a point. Gone is the white-haired male lead we once knew, replaced by a brunette imposter who seems to have stumbled across his namesake’s wardrobe whilst looking for his sister’s eye make-up. It didn’t take long for the mere minutes of footage to be pulled apart by the witch hunt. Apparently Dante isn’t allowed to smoke now, and apparently a pre-rendered trailer has already exposed DMC’s gameplay as a load of junk. 
A single aesthetic decision by Ninja Theory has earned it the wrath of the internet. 
As the world settled down to watch Sony’s 2010 E3 press conference, a similar controversy was brewing, one that would go an entirely different way. 
Infamous 2 isn’t really anything like DMC. It’s not a reboot for one, nor is it developed by a different studio than it’s predecessor. No one really had any reason to complain when it’s trailer faded to black in front of the world’s games press, except for the fact that Cole – the protagonist of both Infamous and its forthcoming sequel – was, much like Dante, different.
Fans weren’t happy. “Where’s the old Cole?” they asked, the one they grew attached to throughout the course of the first game. What right did Sucker Punch, the developer of both games, have to change him? 

Faced with an ‘overwhelmingly negative’ fan reaction, Sucker Punch retreated with their tails between their legs. They saw the negative press  their decision had, and they went back on it, silently patting themselves on the back for being ‘Oh so in touch with their fans.’
There’s this lingering thought that still hangs in the air though. Did fans dislike ‘New Cole’ because he was ‘worse’, or did they just dislike him because he was ‘different’.
Of course, in many respects a lack of change is sensible. If two analogue sticks work well to control a first-person shooter, then why should a game break this rule for the sake of being different? 
The same could be said of other conventions. For example real life shotguns don’t actually have a very limited range, but since that’s what your audience will expect from your game then you’d be wise to make it that way, or else they’re going to have to spend time learning your mechanics rather than simply enjoying them.
Then again, isn’t variety the spice of life?
The Legend of Zelda is a series which has refused, to this day, to contain voiced characters. They’ll whelp, gasp, and even sigh once in a while, but the only speech you’ll get from them is through writing. Is anyone going to seriously argue at this point that a fully voiced Zelda game would be made worse as a result? Or would it simply be different?
There’s a vocal minority of people who play games out there who hate with a passion the idea of change. It’s these people who complained about new Dante, new Cole, and the fact that Sonic’s eyes are green in Sonic the Hedgehog 4. 

Faced with this response developers have two choices, they can have the courage to weather the storm, and stick to the decisions that they, as artists of a medium have made, or they can crumple under the weight of a reaction by an audience who, let us not forget, haven’t even played their work. 
London, like many other cities, is kept in a perpetual warmth by the thousands of motorists who plough through its streets at all hours of the day. It was this warmth which greeted me as I stepped out of the academy’s doors into Piccadilly. I performed the three-tap ritual immediately, as one does when leaving any location. Thankfully phone, keys, and wallet could all be found in their correct pockets. 
When I looked up it wasn’t the crowded pavement that met my gaze which surprised me, but the man standing on it. Tameem Antoniades, lead designer at Ninja Theory met my eye, and extended an arm not out of compassion one assumes, but out of a desire to bring to an end the awkward silence which had replaced the plain silence that had hung in the air not ten seconds previously. 
I’ll admit now I couldn’t help it. I should have turned into the suave ‘freelancer’, and thanked him for taking the time to do this talk. At the very least I should have become the adoring fan, praised him for Heavenly Sword, and told him how I couldn’t wait to get a copy of Enslaved. Instead I assumed the snarky journalist persona, and without thinking asked, “So, how do you feel about the fan reaction to DMC?”
Tameen looked at me a moment and took a drag of his cigarette. Then without blinking, and without pausing to exhale the smoke from his mouth he said, “I don’t care.”
And neither should any other developer. 

Sell What?: How EA Should Get Rock Band 3 Into the History Books

October 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Rock Band 3 is shaping up to be the best rhythm game released in a good long while. Without needing to add tacky extras such as a story mode or celebrity cameos, Harmonix have managed to find a great deal more to add to the music game pie by including a whole new instrument – two if you include the real Squire guitar – as well as the required dozens of new tracks to play.

All of these extra features (and wise omissions) have made the game pretty essential for anyone who counts the genre among their favourites. Here however, Harmonix may find they have a problem, since amongst the gaming community the popularity of these games has been waning over the last year.

A genuine argument could be made that there’s still very much a market for quality games, that recent iterations such as Guitar Hero: Van Halen, and Band Hero (noticing a trend here?) simply don’t appeal to, but the fact remains that DJ Hero was released last year to good reviews, and failed to reach the popularity the genre experienced at its peak.

Rock Band 3 will likely sell fine to the kinds of people that already buy and play music games, but in doing so it would be fulfilling a mere fraction of its potential. There’s already a huge demographic out there who’re ideally placed to jump on the bandwagon with just a little clever marketing on the part of EA: musicians.

At a glance it seems strange that more musicians don’t already play games like Rock Band. These are experiences which are after all crafted around a subject matter which this demographic is passionate about. Five buttons and a strum bar a guitar does not make however, and it’s hard to convince a guitarest to start a game on ‘Easy’ difficulty when with just a little more effort they could use their existing skills to play the real thing. It’s not snobbery at work here, just a time to satisfaction ratio that doesn’t add up for them.

Deciding to market a game to a non-gaming demographic is all well and good, but reaching them with anything other than very expensive scatter-shot advertising is another thing entirely. This isn’t a demographic that congregates around gaming websites, and thus will have most of your press release and preview events completely pass them by.

So if musicians won’t come to Harmonix, then the only reasonable solution is for Harmonix to go to the musicians. Set up kiosks everywhere live music flourishes; gig venues, music shops, boutique record stores, and get your fantastic new instruments into the hands of the people who’ll appreciate in an instant how different this is from all its peers. Don’t just show them pretty pictures of guitars which for all they know could be three-quarter sized, but let them feel the Squire themselves. The MadCatz-produced Fender Mustang may be the default guitar, but showing that to people is going to do more harm than good.

The Fender Squire guitar has the potential to make learning songs on guitar a whole lot easier for guitarists since the Internet’s biggest tabliture sites started getting shut down. Once musicians know that that’s the case they’ll flock to it, but it’s a large investment for anyone other than a prolific gamer. Rock Band 3 could be the biggest music game success since the original Guitar Hero, it’s all just a matter of making sure the right people know about it.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for October, 2010 at The Clockwork Manual.